Today in terrorism: October 5, 1974 Guildford pub bombings

On this day in 1974, bombs went off in two pubs popular with British army personnel in Guildford that was close to several military barracks.

One of the more difficult time periods in Irish, and by extension English, history is known as ‘The Troubles’. This was a long series of violent sectarian conflicts from about 1968 to 1998 in Northern Ireland between the overwhelmingly Protestant unionists, aka loyalists, who desired the province to remain part of the UK, and the overwhelmingly Roman Catholic nationalists, aka republicans, who wanted Northern Ireland to become part of the Irish Republic.

A blog post is nowhere to talk about this long era or the reasons for it. Suffice to say that more than 3,600 people are believed to have died in all. It defined a generation of Irish citizens and even if it ‘ended’ with the Good Friday agreement in 1998 I am sure that there are supporters on both sides who could re-engage in violent action at the drop of a hat. What Brexit and the question of the Northern Ireland border may do to all this is anyone’s guess (not that I am equating Brexit with violence).

A blog post is nowhere to talk about this long era or the reasons for it. 

On this day in 1974, bombs went off in two pubs popular with British army personnel in Guildford, a town in Surrey that was close to several military barracks: soldiers were often the target of terrorist acts by the Irish Republican Army (IRA). Five people died in the blast at the Horse and Groom while no one was killed in the second pub. The police investigation ended in the convictions of three men and a woman the following year.

Here is where it gets interesting

All the suspects had signed confessions which they later retracted, alleging the statements had been obtained using violence, threats to their family and intimidation. The four always protested their innocence but served 15 years before their convictions were quashed by the Court of Appeal in 1989.

The case is widely considered to be one of Britain’s worst miscarriages of justice and UK Prime Minister Tony Blair issued an apology in 2005.

A four-man IRA unit known as the Balcombe Street gang claimed responsibility for the attacks in 1976 but was never charged. Which leads to the question: why were the four accused jailed for so long?

I think this case points to a number of issues. First, investigations are hard and do not unfold as quickly or successfully as they do on the TV show 24. Secondly, in the wake of a successful terrorist attack people and governments want the perpetrators to be found and punished right away, leading to rushed inquiries and insufficient time to get it right. Thirdly, police are people too and subject to the same prejudices as the rest of us. They are human and make mistakes.

Most of us see ‘The Troubles’ as a closed chapter in Irish history. Let’s hope it stays that way.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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